Closeup of a cluster of Jacaranda flowers on a tree in bloom

Closeup of a cluster of Jacaranda flowers on a tree in bloom

KANGAROO VALLEY, Australia – Wending our way toward Melbourne and another Australian Open, which will be quieter this year. Unfortunately the Siberian Siren, Maria Sharapova, won’t be there to defend her title.

She was so terrific a year ago, winning 14 of 14 sets, looking very No. 1, crushing then No. 1 Justine Henin in the quarters, 6-4, 6-0 (perhaps making the retired mini-gem, Justine wonder if life among the musculars was worth continuing). Alas, Sharapova needs more time to rehab and train following right shoulder surgery. Not that shriekers won’t be heard – Venus and Serena to name two. But nobody’s in a vocal class with Maria, whose arias turn many off – or to earplugs.


This edition of the Aussie, which dates back to 1905, should be a wowser with plenty of trouble for the Brash Basher of Belgrade – Novak Djokovic – in protecting his championship, and a merry mixup among the dolls with nobody but the Sisters Sledgehammer really standing out.

Djokovic removed an ailing champ, Roger Federer, in the semis, and overcame the tournament’s startler, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga for the title.

No longer do the terrible twosome – Nos. 1-2 Rafa Nadal and Federer – look to be way ahead of the field. Local bookmakers have installed the Scot shotmaker Andy Murray as co-favorite with Federer at 3 ½-to-1. Federer has carried such a mental load for so long that it’s part of his body. It’s new to Murray, with no major titles in his satchel (Federer has 13), plus the pressure laid on by the sizeable British press corps, desperate to find the successor to the homeland’s most recent – recent? — victor in a major, Englishman Fred Perry, Wimbledon and U.S. in, gulp, 1936. (Brits may have conceived this game, but they haven’t been able to play it for years. By the way, don’t call Scottish Andy English – and risk a scolding.)

While most attention is applied to the fab four – Djokovic and Murray added to Federer and Nadal – don’t overlook Tsonga, and even uneven Andy Roddick, or Juan Martin del Potro, a Latin who likes hard courts. Yes, Roddick, whose list of coaches, is even longer than Elizabeth Taylor’s roster of husbands. I feel his hiring of shrewd Larry Stefanski, will lead him into a bright year.

Remember, this is the Australian Open where strange things happen: Marat Safin decking Federer and winning in 2005; unknown Marcos Baghdatis finalist in 2006; Fernando Gonzalez in 2007; Tsongas last year; Amelie Mauresmo winning in 2006 when Henin got a bellyache.

Maybe it’s the heat in this good old summertime . “Centuries” — temperatures of 100-plus are not uncommon – make you want to fry eggs on the paved courts. Maybe it’s, the uncertainty of a new year.

Seems curious that Jelly Jankovic can be No. 1 though never having won a major, and that the beauty, French Open champ Ana Ivanovic, was No. 1 before being victimized in horrendous upsets. But they’re part of the Serbian Surge, and both were in the semis a year ago, both losing to Sharapova, Ana in the final.

Either could win. So could Dinara Safina or Elene Dementieva, but my pick is Venus along with heavily-baggaged Murray (am I mad or what?)

But truly there are kangaroos in this gorgeous green valley not far from Sydney, to be seen in early morning or evening. They are hip-hop wonders in the fauna league, just as Monique Davies and Simone Dyson are in theirs, the gastronomic, superb chefs encountered in home stays. Australians didn’t know how to cook in 1963, my first visit. But all that has changed country-wide for the much better. Thanks to Monique and Simone for putting hops in our hips.

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